He was at it again. With poor aim, he flicked peas to the amusement of his comrades. I dodged the green bullet he sent my way by swaying to the left. He set his sights on the girl who was eating her lunch quietly next to me. How had I ended up sitting across from him? Had he forgotten the events of less than twenty-four hours? John ‘the tomato’ was living life on the edge for whatever reason I was not aware of. He earned his nickname because his face was round and turned bright red when he was angry or got caught doing his daily devious deeds. He was taking his chances while we were under the watch of a woman straight out of Nazi Germany.
She plainly announced her presence with a strong nicotine odor and a dragon voice to match. An entire table of energetic smiling children would freeze with utensils in mid-air as she slithered by with a slow deliberate stroll, darting her squinting eyes looking for infractions. All verbal communications would stop when she locked her eyes on a child, and pensive normalcy would not resume until she continued onward with her patrol.
When she decided that the noise had gotten on her last nerve, she would pick up a microphone and yell,
“BE QUIET!” with decibels that could have shattered the sound barrier. We never knew when she would blow.
The lunch room was located in the elementary school’s gymnasium to conserve space. An orange partition was set up to confine us for crowd control, and to serve as a means for public humiliation. If a student was apprehended for breaking one of her laws, he or she was immediately dispatched to the ‘the wall’ with nose pressed against it for the rest of us to see.
The day before, I had witnessed her approach John from behind, grab his shirt by the collar with her talons and drag him off to a spot. There was no wrongdoing on his part that any of us had seen. She had decided to punish him just because she could.
He had beat the wall with his fists screaming,
“I didn’t do anything! I want my mom! I didn’t do anything!” True to form, his face was a brilliant shade of crimson. Usually, I didn’t feel bad for him because he generally was guilty of the crime, but this time had been different. There had been no offense to afford him the trip up there with his backside to us.
So it was beyond me why he would want to tempt fate to be singled out again.
I heard her approach with my right ear. When in a situation where threats abound, the senses become more keen. It was the familiar squish sound of soft soled mandatory cafeteria shoes along with the perfume cigarette scent she wore like a badge of honor. John sat up straight and ceased fire of his vegetables. She bent down underneath our table and brought up a peanut butter and jelly sandwich that had been trampled by numerous shoes.
“Who does this belong to?” she hissed.
We all shook our heads to indicate it wasn’t any of ours. Without warning, the tomato pointed his dirty pudgy finger at me and exclaimed,
“It’s hers. I saw her throw it.” A bold faced lie. The kid who had been wrongly blamed the day before was targeting me. Any compassion I had felt for him melted away forever.
I glanced up to face off with one of my biggest terrors in human form.
“Is this yours?” she bellowed with her red lips in a snarl. The entire room went silent.
“No. I already ate mine.” I had been done eating for quite awhile and had disposed of my brown lunch bag.
“It’s hers! I saw her!” he said again. This time his friends joined in with him as well as others around us.
She stood over me and presented the item in question directly underneath my nose.
“It isn’t mine,” I said trying to convince her of the truth. It wasn’t working.
“You either eat this or you will have detention.”
I wan’t one of those kids who got detention! I had not ever been sent to the wall. Detention meant the beginning of years of juvenile delinquency, and that was not who I was. And, I had been told to never go against an authority figure.
The first bite was crunchy as gravel from the floor mixed in with the bread on the surface of my teeth. I gagged at first but managed. There was no liquid to wash it down so each sandy bite felt like the desert. I could hear the stifled giggles as those around watched me eat a meal that wasn’t mine. Her dark shadow enveloped me until she was satisfied with my last swallow.
“We don’t throw food here,” she said as she sauntered away.
When I got home from school that day, I was greeted with the usual question:
“How was school today?”
“I had to eat a peanut butter and jelly sandwich off the floor, ” I said.
I explained the event to my mom.
“Why did you eat it?”
“I was told if I didn’t that I would get detention.”
This situation would have been harrowing for any parent to hear, but she was a registered nurse who kept our home sterile like a hospital. There was always a can of Lysol lurking in a cupboard waiting to be sprayed.
“Don’t ever do that again, ” she said.
I thought that was the end of the matter, but that evening I could hear her relating the tale to my dad once he got home from work. From my vantage point in the house, the news wasn’t going over so well. I was ushered into a remote location in the basement that was nearly sound proof while a phone call was made to the principal.
Before bed, my dad stepped into my room and said,
“If she ever makes you or another child do something like that again, say something right away. If she does anything that isn’t right, tell an adult. She will be fired.”
I went into the lunchroom the next day with a new sense of power. It was like someone had slayed the dragon or at least put out her fire.
I proceeded as usual to get my small carton of milk to go along with my bag lunch. I made sure to distance myself from John’s table. I had no sooner been seated when I sensed her approach. With a fake loving hand on my shoulder she said in a voice so soft,
“I didn’t mean for you to eat that sandwich. There must have been some mistake.” I looked her directly in the eye without a trace of fear or humility.
“You made me eat that sandwich that wasn’t mine and you know you did. My dad said you will be fired if you ever do that again.” She dropped her hand away, blinked rather rapidly with her mouth contorting in shock. I had found my fifth grade voice. She had suddenly lost hers. She turned on her heel and marched away.
There have been other times in my life where I have been in situations where I felt alone in the face of uncomfortable circumstances. However, I have learned that just because I feel that way doesn’t make it true. Just like my dad supported me, we have access to our Creator who loves us so deeply that a plan will be enacted on our behalf if we ask for it. A heartfelt prayer asking for assistance can change things around in an instant. We can go from helpless to hopeful very quickly just by spending some time in the presence of the One who sees it all. There will be times when maybe the truth of the matter is only known between us and heaven, but we can find comfort knowing that we are not walking on earth in solidarity. Someone is always in your corner. Even when you are unjustly accused.